Civil rights activist Rosa Parks (1913-2005), whose birthday was February 4th, is best known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. Her refusal and arrest on December 1, 1955 sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and helped fuel the modern civil rights movement.
Events in Rosa Parks’ life are chronicled in newspapers and comic books and reinforce her well-justified iconic status. At times, though, their simplified coverage perpetuates the myth of Parks as the quiet seamstress who was too tired to stand to give up her seat. By contrast, the Rosa Parks Papers at the Library of Congress and the new exhibition drawn from them, Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, provide insight into Parks as a lifelong activist. Still, newspapers and comic books, whatever their limitations and biases, can be valuable in providing contemporary historical and cultural context.
As a young woman, Parks helped her husband, Raymond, in organizing support to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. She was also active in trying to save the life of Jeremiah Reeves, who, in 1952, at the age of 16, had a consensual relationship with a white woman who then accused him of rape. Even though the case went twice to the Supreme Court, Reeves was executed at the age of 22.
Parks cited the August 1955 kidnapping and brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the acquittal of his murderers that September as impetus for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man.
These and other early events in Parks’ life provide the backdrop for her refusal to give up her bus seat, her deep commitment to the subsequent bus boycott, and her continuing activism.
Local coverage of the boycott can be particularly revealing and is accessible on The Montgomery Advertiser’s website, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott: They Changed the World”: Newspaper Front Pages. These front pages and articles provide examples covering a wide range of dates from the boycott’s beginning to its end with some articles digitized and others available in text format.
While Rosa Parks was not a plaintiff in Browder v Gayle, the Supreme Court case legally ending racial segregation on public transportation in the state of Alabama, her actions helped move the decision forward.
Comic book coverage of Parks began early on. In 1957, the Fellowship of Reconciliation published Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 16-page comic book that provided a concise version of the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks appeared briefly, but heroically, with the story focused on Martin Luther King Jr., as the title suggests. The story is told through the eyes of a young black man, who becomes an activist after being inspired by Rosa Parks’ bravery. However, it still provides the simplistic explanation: “Because she was tired and her feet ached, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the bus.”
The story provided an example of the potential of nonviolent action for advancing social change. The comic book was distributed through civil rights organizations, churches, and schools. Its compelling message has been translated into multiple languages over the years, including into Arabic in 2008.
The real-life Rosa Parks truly was brave: she and her husband endured multiple death threats, unemployment, and poverty. Newspapers covered their move, along with her mother, from Montgomery, Alabama to Detroit, Michigan in August 1957, where her only brother Sylvester and his family lived. In October 1957, she moved alone to Hampton, Virginia to work as a hostess at the Holly Tree Inn at Hampton Institute, hoping her husband and mother would be able to join her there. Her employment and housing did not work out as she had hoped and she returned to Detroit in 1958.
After a decade of poverty in Montgomery and Detroit, Parks volunteered for John Conyers’ congressional campaign. Following his victory, she worked in Congressman Conyer’s Detroit district office from 1965 to 1988–all the while, continuing her activism.
As recognition of Parks’ significance grew, she received multiple honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. She was covered more extensively in newspapers, comics, and graphic novels. In 2013, Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin wrote the first book in their graphic novel trilogy, March, illustrated by Nate Powell. They included Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in Book One. It is Book Three, though, published in 2016, that features Parks in a later role, speaking on March 25, 1965 outside the Alabama State Capitol at the end of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. This third march was completed under guard of federal marshals and federalized Alabama National Guard troops, after the earlier murders of activists Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb, and the beatings of march leaders John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The newspaper articles shown above were located by searching the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, which only recently has been able to include selected newspapers through 1963 that have been found to be in the public domain. You can find additional free examples of newspaper articles focused on Rosa Parks with a wider date range via the commercial database Newspapers.com at Topics: Famous People: Rosa Parks.
For more extensive research, please visit the Library’s Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room in Washington, DC. Here you can search commercial databases we have accessible on-site, such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers (with Historical Black Newspapers), and NewspaperArchive. You can examine a wide array of newspapers on microfilm, including The Montgomery Advertiser, the Detroit Free Press, and The Detroit News. You can also see original comic books and those on microfiche in our collection.
Can’t visit us soon? Check into resources available through your local libraries, including databases and interlibrary loan of newspaper microfilm from the Library of Congress and other research libraries.
Another important reason to visit: see the exhibition, Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, in person. If that’s also not possible, check out the exhibition online and see these additional recent Library of Congress blog posts about her:
- “Ro-sa Parks! Ro-sa Parks!” Kicking off Black History Month
- Transcribe the Rosa Parks Papers for African American History Month
- Rosa Parks, In Her Own Words: A Short Documentary
- Behind the Scenes: Inspired by Rosa Parks
- Rosa Parks: In Music
- Math, Measurement, Civil Rights, and Pancakes: A Recipe from Rosa Parks